"Intersectionality": An Essay by Reiland Rabaka (Keywords: Identity; Oppression; Black Feminism)
Image: Barbara Smith (co-founder of the Combahee River Collective)
From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 2 ("The New Basics: Society").
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Intersectionality means many different things to many different people. For some, it is the most electrifying theory to emerge out of Black feminist studies in the past 30 years. For others, intersectionality is a set of organizing strategies created to subvert “interlocking systems of oppression” such as racism, sexism, classism, and heterosexism, among others. Yet another group of people understand intersectionality to be more of a political praxis and ethical ideal for intellectuals, artists, activists, and allies who challenge outdated conceptions of a “single axis of oppression” that all or most of a specific group’s oppression revolves around. For example, supposedly Black people’s single axis of oppression is racism, women’s single axis of oppression is sexism, queer and trans folks’ single axis of oppression is heterosexism, and working-class and working-poor people’s single axis of oppression is capitalism. Intersectionality contests one-dimensional conceptions of identity and reductive notions of oppression and instead accentuates the multiplicity of identity and the complexity and inextricability of systems of oppression.
First introduced in 1989 in a landmark law review article by Kimberlé Crenshaw entitled “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex,” the term “intersectionality” has travelled far and wide. For Crenshaw, intersectionality names and explains the ways in which Black women experience forms of discrimination that are often simultaneously raced, gendered, sexualized, and classed and, because the legal system is set up to address singly oppressed as opposed to multiply oppressed plaintiffs, the specific intersecting forms of oppression Black women face are erased and unaddressed. Crenshaw completely called into question the “single axis of oppression” conceptualization of discrimination that frequently “treat[ed] race and gender as mutually exclusive categories of experience and analysis” by demonstrating that it validated a “paradigm of sex discrimination [that] tends to be based on the experiences of White women…[and a] model of race discrimination [that] tends to be based on the experiences” of Black men.
Intersectionality is not simply an academic exercise or radical chic for many of its adherents, but also a tool that can be used to bring into being a qualitatively different humanity and society.
Consequently, intersectionality offers multiply marginalized people a way to identify and interpret various forms of violence, oppression, and exploitation that are often obscured by the “single axis of oppression” postulation. It provides both campus intellectuals and community activists with a theoretically sophisticated and politically provocative framework for understanding how cultural capital, social wealth, and political power works within, and throughout, several mutually constitutive (as opposed to mutually exclusive) forms of social difference, political identities, and economic statuses. Bearing this in mind, intersectionality is often understood to be, and embraced simultaneously as, a theory, method, and praxis with implications for the academy and broader society. In other words, intersectionality is not simply an academic exercise or radical chic for many of its adherents, but also a tool that can be used to bring into being a qualitatively different humanity and society.
The roots of intersectionality can be traced back to Black feminist abolitionist Sojourner Truth’s 1851 “Ain’t I A Woman?” speech at the Women’s Rights Conference in Akron, Ohio. In the speech, Truth critiqued White supremacy, the patriarchy of both White and Black men, and White suffragettes’ anti-Black racism (or “feminist racism”) within their movement and wider quest to achieve voting rights and gender justice. Anna Julia Cooper’s A Voice from the South, which was published in 1892, is also considered a major precursor to intersectionality. In the book, Cooper critiqued American apartheid and gender inequality, and cautioned against Black male-centred and Black male-dominated civil rights and voting rights campaigns that infantilized and marginalized the lives and struggles of Black women. She famously declared, “Only the BLACK WOMAN can say ‘when and where I enter . . . then and there the whole Negro race enters with me’.” Both Truth and Cooper call into question how conventional conceptions of feminism, anti-racism, civil rights, voting rights, and social justice, in most instances, marginalize and invisibilize African American women’s experiences and epistemologies (i.e., Black feminist knowledges).
Although called many different names throughout the history of the Black feminist intellectual tradition, intersectionality, more than anything else, has come to signify critical thinking about the interconnected nature of race, gender, sexuality, and class, among other identificatory categories. Moreover, intersectionality also symbolizes and emphasizes Black women’s lives and struggles at the intersection where racism, sexism, classism, and heteropatriarchy, among other oppressions, calamitously collide. Although other groups of non-White women have articulated similar interrogations of race, gender, sexuality, and class, it has been Black women’s popularization of intersectionality as a theory, method, and praxis that has altered contemporary conceptions of feminism, sexology, anti-racism, intellectualism, art, progressive politics, and social movements, among others, both within and without the academy. From the women of the American Indian Movement, to the women of the Brown Power (aka Chicano) Movement, to the women of the Asian American Movement, and through to the women of the United Farm Workers and the Young Lords Party, among others, something conceptually akin to intersectionality has been free-floating through movements among “women of colour” for over a century. However, many believe – this author included – that it is important to acknowledge the Black women who were central to the origins and early evolution and popularization of intersectionality precisely because there remains a longstanding tendency to primarily associate feminism and women’s studies with White women, and anti-racism and Black studies with Black men, which invisibilizes or, at the very least, marginalizes Black women’s experiences and epistemologies in discussions on women, workers, sexuality, patriarchy and white supremacy, and so on.
Perhaps no period in U.S. history was more important to the intellectual genealogy of intersectionality than the era in the 1960s and 1970s that saw the rise and fall of both the Black Power Movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement. African American women obviously took note of Black male militancy during the Black Power Movement. As the Civil Rights Movement came to an end, African American men’s exasperation with the system increased and often transformed itself into various kinds of new-fangled forms of machismo and misogyny. African American women largely ended up in the unpleasant position of having to choose between supporting the Black Power Movement, which was increasingly defined and dominated by Black men, or supporting the Women’s Liberation Movement, which had increasingly come to be defined and dominated by White women.
There can be little doubt concerning African American women’s alienation and marginalization in both the Black Power Movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement.
Understandably, many African American women found few connections with what they perceived to be the White women-centred, middle-class, college-educated, and career-oriented overarching agenda of the Women’s Liberation Movement. Consequently, a contingent of Black women ultimately decided to create their own distinct movement that combined the struggle for racial justice emerging from the Black Power Movement with the struggle for gender justice emerging from the Women’s Liberation Movement. At this point, there can be little doubt concerning African American women’s alienation and marginalization in both the Black Power Movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement. A spate of recent research has demonstrated that many Black women were participants in the aforementioned widely recognized movements, as well as their own often unrecognized movement: the Black Women’s Liberation Movement. That is to say, before Kimberlé Crenshaw coined and popularized the term “intersectionality” in 1989, the women of the Black Women’s Liberation Movement lived, theorized, and practiced insurgent forms of anterior intersectionality devoid of the kinds of esoteric jargon and academic baggage so often associated with the term today.
As the Civil Rights Movement came to a close in the mid-1960s, Black women were increasingly being relegated to supportive roles behind the scenes, and with the rise of Black nationalist masculinist rhetoric during the early years of the Black Power Movement they came to understand that the Black male leaders of the movement, essentially in response to the infamous 1965 Moynihan Report, wanted Black women to embrace “traditional” gender roles based on White middle-class conceptions of womanhood, wifehood, and motherhood. The Moynihan Report disreputably revealed that the African American family was dominated and deformed by “Black matriarchs” who, in essence, emasculated Black men because they (Black women) supposedly had more economic power and greater access to social resources as a result of their greater employment opportunities in mid-twentieth-century America.
Where Black women encountered issues revolving around sexism and hypermasculinism in the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power Movement, respectively, in the White women-centred Women’s Liberation Movement they were confronted with what social movement sociologist Steven Buechler has termed White feminists’ “race and class unconsciousness.” This caused many Black women to shun feminism, and others who identified as feminists to be extremely reluctant to participate in a Women’s Liberation Movement that was essentially destined to liberate White middle-class women only. Black women were as constricted because of racism and capitalism as they were because of sexism. And they understood White feminists’ “race and class unconsciousness” to be yet another reminder of the yawning chasm between Black and White women’s lives and struggles. Besides, many Black feminists argued, joining the White women-centred Women’s Liberation Movement would be another double-duty for Black women in that they would have to constantly deconstruct and reconstruct White feminist issues and incessantly educate White feminists about Black women’s distinct lives and struggles, especially as they revolve around the political economy of race and anti-Black racism in a simultaneously White supremacist, patriarchal, and capitalist society.
Instead of genuflecting to White feminists’ gender obsession, and rather than kowtowing to the radical rhetoric of Black nationalist masculinists, Black women mobilized their own insurgent intersectional movement. As books like Benita Roth’s Separate Roads to Feminism and Kimberly Springer’s Living for the Revolution reveal, between 1966 and 1980 Black women established a number of autonomous Black women-led and Black women-centred organizations, including the Black Women’s Liberation Committee of SNCC (which broke away from SNCC in 1968 to form an independent group initially named the Black Women’s Alliance and later the Third World Women’s Alliance (1968–1980)); the National Black Feminist Organization (1973–1975); the National Alliance of Black Feminists (1976–1980); the Combahee River Collective (1975–1980); and Black Women Organized for Action (1973–1980). There were also important debates and critical discussions concerning Black women’s liberation that were undertaken within organizations not commonly perceived as sites for “feminist” or “womanist” mobilization, such as the Black Panther Party, the National Welfare Rights Organization, and the National Domestic Workers Union.
Along with establishing activist-oriented organizations, the Black women of the 1960s and 1970s also developed Black feminist theory and praxis to speak to their special needs. Much of this work has been recognized as the spiritual, philosophical, and political foundation for what we now know as “intersectionality.” For instance, the polymathic Toni Cade Bambara published her seminal edited volume, The Black Woman, in 1970; the Third World Women’s Alliance published a newspaper, Triple Jeopardy, at least ten times between 1971 and 1975; Black Women Organized for Action published a monthly newsletter regularly between 1973 and 1980; in April of 1977 Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith, and Demita Frazier issued their groundbreaking “Combahee River Collective Statement”; and evolving out of the Combahee River Collective’s Black Women’s Network retreats, in 1980 Barbara Smith, Audre Lorde, and Cherríe Moraga, among others, co-founded Kitchen Table Women of Color Press, which published numerous pioneering non-White feminist texts.
Several recurring themes surface in the writings of Black and other non-White feminists of the late 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s that directly contributed to contemporary conceptions of intersectionality as a theory, method, and praxis: an emphasis on the interconnection of racial, gender, sexual, and class oppression as the only viable way to critically analyze and adequately articulate the lives and struggles of Black and other non-White women; the “feminist racism” and “race and class unconsciousness” of the White women-centred Women’s Liberation Movement; homophobia (queerphobia), heteropatriarchy, and heterosexism; domestic violence; rape; reproductive rights; physical and mental healthcare; political prisoners; prisoners’ rights; non-White women immigrants’ issues; alternative and women-centred education; non-White women’s leadership and activism; and the impact of environmental racism on non-White women, among others.
This means that when Crenshaw coined and popularized “intersectionality,” she named and claimed a theory, method, and praxis that Black and other non-White women had been living, theorizing, and putting into practice since the days of nineteenth century Black feminist abolitionists such as Maria Stewart, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. From the forenamed nineteenth century Black feminist abolitionists, to twentieth century Black feminists such as Angela Davis, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Patricia Hill Collins and Crenshaw herself, through to twenty-first century Black feminists such as Brittney Cooper, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Omise'eke Natasha Tinsley, adrienne maree brown, Moya Bailey, and Mikki Kendall, intersectionality has radically transformed the arts, humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, medical sciences, law, policy, and education, among many others. And twenty-first century Black and other non-White feminists have certainly expanded the applicability and utility of intersectionality far beyond Crenshaw’s original conceptual framework. Synthesizing intersectionality with emergent theories throughout the academy, urban and rural Black vernacular culture, Black queer studies and queer of colour critique, Black trans studies and trans of colour critique, and several popular millennial media platforms, there are few folks who call themselves “feminists” in the twenty-first century who have not been influenced by intersectionality.
The critique of intersectionality is a clear sign that – finally! – Black and other non-White feminists’ theories and praxes are being taken seriously by a wide range of people.
However, intersectionality does have its fair share of critics, such as Jennifer Nash, Nikol Alexander-Floyd, Jasbir Puar, Barbara Tomlinson, Avtar Brah, and Ann Phoenix, among others. The critique of intersectionality is a clear sign that – finally! – Black and other non-White feminists’ theories and praxes are being taken seriously by a wide range of people, both in the academy and in society, and that, perhaps, the longstanding tendency to invisibilize and marginalize non-White women’s experiences and epistemology is coming to an end. With all of the acclaim and criticism of intersectionality, it still amazes that it was not a theory emerging from White feminism but a theory, method, and praxis from Black and non-White feminism that reinvigorated feminism and introduced successive generations to identity politics, the politics of difference, feminism, women’s movements, gender justice, sexology, queer and trans studies, critical race theory, and decolonial theory, among many other theories and praxes.
Reiland Rabaka is Professor of African, African American, and Caribbean Studies in the Department of Ethnic Studies and the Founder and Director of the Center for African & African American Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. He is also a Research Fellow in the College of Human Sciences at the University of South Africa (UNISA). Rabaka has published 17 books and more than 85 scholarly articles, book chapters, and essays, including most recently The Routledge Handbook of Pan-Africanism (2020), Du Bois: A Critical Introduction (2021), and Black Power Music!: Protest Songs, Message Music, and the Black Power Movement (2022). He is also a poet and musician.
From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 2 ("The New Basics: Society").
If you enjoyed reading this, please consider becoming a patron or making a small donation.
We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.